326 B. POLEVOI
precision of clock-work. The first thing to do was to gain
altitude, not by spiralling, but by an oblique ascent in the
direction of the airfield. Good!
He laid his machine to the required course, and seeing
the ground drop beneath him and a haze come over the
horizon, he continued his calculations in a calmer mood.
It was no use counting on the fuel. Even if the gauge
was slightly at fault he would not have enough. Land
before he got to the airfield? But where? He mentally went
over the whole of the short route. Woods, scrubby bog
and the bumpy fields in the zone of permanent defences,
all ploughed up in criss-cross fashion, pitted with craters
and bristling with barbed wire.
"No! I'll only kill myself if I land!"
Bail out? That could be done. Right now. Open the
hood, veer, push the stick—and that's all. But what about
the machine, this wonderful, swift and agile bird? Its
fighting qualities had saved his life three times that day.
Abandon it, smash it, convert it into a heap of twisted
metal? It was not that he would be to blame for this. He
was not afraid of that. In fact, he had a right to bail
out in a situation like this. At that moment the machine
seemed to him to be a strong, generous and devoted living
thing, and to abandon it would be downright treachery.
And then—to return without his machine after the very
first combat flights, to wait in the reserve until he got
another, to be idle in a hectic time like this when our
great victory was starting at the front, to hang around
doing nothing at a time like this!
"No fear!" said Alexei aloud, as if somebody had
proposed this to him.
Fly until the engine stops. And then? Then we'll see.
And he flew on, first at three and then at four thousand
metres, scanning the ground in the hope of finding a small
glade. The wood behind which the airfield was situated
was already looming on the horizon; it was about fifteen
kilometres away. The pointer of the fuel gauge was no
longer trembling, it was lying firmly on the limit button.
But the engine was still working! What was feeding it?
Higher, still higher... . Good!
Suddenly, the steady drone, which the airman's ear
does not notice any more than a healthy man notices the